Pick up the newspaper or tune in to a Sunday morning TV gabfest
and you're likely to read or hear about the sizable majority of Americans who
approve of voucher plans--school choice, as proponents put it. These assertions
are sustained by the holy writ of the public opinion poll, rooted in random
sample, buffered by margin of error, presented as mathematic (and, therefore,
objective) truth. Who could say them nay?
Well, the voters could. And regularly do. The defeats of voucher plans in
Michigan and California in the 2000 election brought the school choice referendum
tally to zero out of 10 (not even one of these was close). Sometimes the losing
side in a referendum can claim it was so badly outspent that a torrent of
unrefuted misinformation bamboozled the electorate. But in both Michigan and
California, the pro-voucher forces spent slightly more than their foes did, and
they still got smeared.
So is something fishy about those polls? Are ideologues fiddling with the numbers
or distorting the results to fool us into thinking that support for their pet
issue is greater than it really is? Certainly, the artful misuse of polling has
become commonplace, perhaps because it is rarely noticed by anyone and almost
never challenged by political journalists, who are increasingly dependent on the
surveys and the surveyors.
There is, for instance, the much discussed poll verdict that more young people
believe in flying saucers than believe that Social Security will be around when
they retire. But the 1994 poll from which this tidbit comes--commissioned by the
antiSocial Security group Third Millennium--did not ask whether people were more
certain of the one belief than they were of the other. The Social Security
question came early in the survey; the one about UFOs, included largely for its
public relations value, was at the end and was accompanied by a telling plea to
"take this seriously." (Three years later, another poll--this one commissioned by
the Employee Benefit Research Program, an organization known for its neutral
research--asked whether people had more confidence in the future of Social
Security or in the reality of extraterrestrial visitors. Even young adults opted
two-to-one for Social Security.)
Not every survey cited by voucher advocates is concocted by conservatives.
A poll conducted last year by the Joint Center for Political and Economic
Studies, a liberal African-American organization, found that a 49 percent
plurality of the general population and a 57 percent majority of blacks favored
voucher plans. And according to a 1998 poll conducted by the University of
WisconsinMilwaukee's Institute for Survey and Policy Research, 60 percent in
Wisconsin approved of them.
Nonetheless, there is a certain amount of intellectual fuzziness in the
interpretation of this data as it wends its way through the elaborate
opinion-creation machine. Take, for example, the July 2000 edition of School
Reform News--a monthly newspaper published by the Heartland Institute, a free
market think tank in Illinois--which hailed the results of a poll showing that 58
percent of respondents in Massachusetts express "overall support for vouchers."
As it turns out, the poll was commissioned by the Pioneer Institute, which just
happens to be another free market think tank, this one in Boston. The folks at
Pioneer say they won't provide details about the polls they commission, leaving
the rest of the world to wonder just what "overall support" means.
That same issue of School Reform News reported that "Kansas residents
showed strong support for school vouchers in a recent statewide survey conducted
by Emporia State University for the Kansas National Education Association, the
state's largest teacher union and a fervent opponent of vouchers." Not exactly.
According to the union's Peg Dunlap, "The university did the poll independently.
We helped pay for it. We did not control the questions."
Still, if you asked the average person (as did the Joint Center pollsters),
"Would you support a voucher system where parents would get money from the
government to send their children to the public, private, or parochial school of
their choice?" there is little doubt that he or she would be more likely to say
yes than no.
And why not? "Choice" comes close to being a magic word in America, where folks
want their every decision to be an autonomous exercise of will. Especially now
that fewer decisions meet that description, people are likely to welcome any hint
of enhanced discretion. It's no accident that abortion rights supporters call
Compared with other polls, the Joint Center's survey was a model of probity. At
least it used the less appealing word "vouchers" and did not include rhetoric
about troubled schools or falling test scores.
Consider the wording of a question about the separate but related issue of
charter schools that was used in 1999 by Penn, Schoen, and Berland Associates on
behalf of the Democratic Leadership Council: "Charter schools are public schools
that are run by teachers, parents, or private companies and financed by the state
on a per pupil basis. They are held accountable for achieving educational
results, and in return they receive waivers that exempt them from many of the
restrictions and bureaucratic rules that apply to traditional public schools.
Given this, do you favor or oppose charter schools?"
The vast multitudes who hate accountability and revere red tape could have been
expected to oppose. Only 26 percent did.
Though rarely "wrong," polls are often meaningless simply because they
measure a public opinion that barely exists. For good or ill, the American public
is not dominated by the policy wonk tribe. Most folks spend precious little time
considering public affairs at all, much less the finer points. In the case of
school vouchers, we know this thanks to ... a poll. "On Thin Ice," an unusually
detailed survey conducted by Public Agenda in 1999, concluded, "It isn't that
people are undecided as much as that they are unaware. The vast majority of the
public knows very little about school vouchers."
Besides, a poll has no consequences, and people know it. Telling a voice on
the other end of the phone that you favor vouchers costs you nothing--including
much time to think about it.
Referenda, however, do have consequences; and while it would be naive to think
that California and Michigan voters became experts in school policy last autumn,
it is reasonable to assume that they picked up a little something during the
One thing they seem to have learned is that an issue is invariably more
complicated than any poll question makes it out to be. Margaret Trimmer-Hartley
of the Michigan National Education Association said the most convincing argument
against vouchers in that state was that the final choices would be made not by
parents but by the proprietors of private schools. Wayne Johnson, the president
of the California Teachers Association, conceded that early polls in his state
gave vouchers a lead of roughly 70 percent to 30 percent. "The numbers started
changing when you told people that private schools could discriminate. They were
evenly divided on parental choice, which they like; but when you take public
dollars to put into private schools, they don't like that."
Even Chester Finn, the intellectual leader of the school choice movement,
acknowledged that the poll results could be oversimplifying the issue. "Americans
hold two values very dear," Finn said. "One is the value of freedom to make
choices for themselves. The other is reverence for a vague institution called
public education. When those two values are put in direct conflict with each
other and you're told you have to choose between them, you respond differently."
Of course, it's a mistake to assume that vouchers and the status quo are the
only choices. A Gallup poll taken last year for Phi Delta Kappa showed support
for vouchers. But when people were asked whether they'd rather put money into a
voucher plan or into improving the existing public schools, three-quarters chose
Polling is a useful tool, but one of its uses is distortion. Next time an
advocate for one cause or another blabbers about how "polls show" whatever, look
for specifics--particularly wording and sponsors. As the voters in Michigan and
California demonstrated, polls often don't show much.